Man holding out a tilt shift lens

Using a Tilt-Shift Lens for Panoramic Photos

There are many ways to create panoramic photos. You can start with a really wide angle lens then simply crop down to a long, narrow band to create a “faux” panorama. You can also use the built-in panoramic functions of cameras like Sony’s NEX and Alpha series, as well as Fuji’s X100 and X-Pro 1. You can also simply take a series of pictures using a pano head and stitch them together in Photoshop.

A panoramic photo with the Fuji X100's built-in pano feature.

A panorama taken with the Fuji X100’s built-in pano feature.

Here is one of my favorite ways to create panoramic photos. All of the methods above have some shortcomings that make it a bit harder to create good panos. Using a wide angle lens and cropping, for example, leaves me with a lower-resolution file than I’d like. The built-in pano features in some cameras are neat, and I do use them, but they’re also relatively low-res JPEGs. Pano heads are great for this sort of work, but you have to find the “nodal point” of each lens you want to use and that takes quite a bit of work.

Example of what a tilt-shift lens can do. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Example of what a tilt-shift lens can do. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tilt-shift lenses are a great alternative for creating panoramic photos. Traditionally, these are used by architectural and landscape photographers to avoid distortion or “keystoning” of buildings and structures. The camera and lens is placed so that the sensor is parallel to the object being photographed, and the front half of the lens is shifted upward or downward to include the parts of the images needed. You can see the practical application of this in the image from Wikipedia.

The cool thing about a tilt-shift lens (or a perspective-control lens) is that they can shift in either a vertical or horizontal plane. It’s the horizontal shift that we can use for our advantage.

Below, I have an image of the San Francisco skyline. That image was taken with a Canon 5D Mark II and a 45mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lens, with no shift at all.

Straight (unshifted) image of the San Francisco skyline.

Straight (unshifted) image of the San Francisco skyline.

Below shows part of the Bay Bridge now, but the camera hasn’t been moved or panned to add that coverage. Instead, I simply shifted the front half of the tilt-shift lens to the left.

Left-shifted image of the skyline.

Left-shifted image of the skyline.

Next, it shows the rest of the skyline to the right as I shift the lens in the opposite direction as before.

Right-shifted image of the skyline.

Right-shifted image of the skyline.

After that, it’s just a matter of bringing the images into Photoshop and aligning them together. In this case, I discarded my first image. The shifted shots, taken with the lens shifted to the left and right, had enough overlap for my needs.

I placed the two images on two separate layers, with a layer mask to ensure a smooth blending between the two. It took minimal alignment to get them together, because the tilt-shift lens ensures that your perspective doesn’t get skewed.

The two images, stacked in Photoshop to make a panoramic photo.

The two images, stacked in Photoshop.

The resulting image is about 32.7MP in size, and after a little bit of straightening, cropping, and a black-and-white conversion in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, I’m still left with a 24MP image that will hold up nicely for a large print. The final image is shown below.

The final panoramic photo, finished in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

The final image, finished in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

Tilt-shift lenses can seem intimidating, but they really aren’t. The make great tools for panoramic photos but they are designed for accurate shots of buildings and landscapes in general and are also fun for creating miniaturization effects. Check out our range of Canon and Nikon tilt-shifts today!

Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

1 Comment

  • Peter

    Yeah I love using my 24mm TS-E f3.5L II & 45mm f2.8 TS-E lenses for both Pano’s & Architectural. Miniaturization can be fun at times too, I’ve been hanging out for Canon to bring out an “L” series of the 90mm f2.8 TS-E or it’s replacement, 135mm f?.?L maybe?.
    I did use my 24mm TS-E hand held to do a Pano of Sydney Harbour & the Bridge a couple of weeks ago on a 1Ds-MkIII. Hard work holding it but it came out good, almost perfectly lined up & level, very little cropping. Next time I will use the tripod & Smart Phone via OnTheGo USB cable.

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